Can Having a Purpose in Life Protect You From Pain?

Purposeful people live longer; that’s the takeaway from a recent study1 based on data taken from a longitudinal sample that followed 7,108 participants for approximately 15 years. According to the study, this finding held true no matter what age the participants were at the beginning and end of the sample and no matter how old they were when they found their purpose. It also held true even after adjusting for other markers of psychological wellbeing.

At least one other study has found similar effects. A sample of 1,238 people2 followed for up to five years showed that participants having high purpose in life had a 50% reduction in mortality rate compared to individuals with low purpose. The study, conducted by a neuropsychologist at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago, also found that purposeful people think more clearly, even into old age.

The neuropsychologist, Dr. Boyle, and her team followed a group of nearly 1,000 participants (average age 80) for several years (mean = 4.0 years) and found that the most purposeful participants were 2.4 times more likely to remain free of Alzheimer’s disease than the least purposeful participants. According to the researchers, the purposeful participants also experienced slower rates of cognitive decline (by as much as 30%). These results remained strong even after the researchers considered the participants’ mental health, social network size, and number of chronic medical conditions, all things which are well known to affect overall wellbeing. As writer Paula Span wrote in an article for the NY Times, “purpose in life, all by itself, appears to have a potent ability to improve and extend lives.”

Amazingly, Dr. Boyle and her team also found that having a purpose in life protected people from cognitive decline related to Alzheimer’s3,even in participants whose autopsies showed the biological markers of the disease.
This means that even when people with purpose got Alzheimer's disease, they didn't experience the effects of it in as much as or in the same way as did people whom had less purpose in their lives.

The next question to ask then for those of us with chronic illnesses is: Can having a purpose in life protect us from chronic pain or, at least, help us deal with it more easily?

Though there are several scientific papers available through Google Scholar that theorize this, I couldn’t find any definitive proof for the idea that purpose protects us from pain. Still, considering that purposefulness is correlated with a lessened risk of disability,decreased risk of suicide in depressed and potentially suicidal people4, and better outcomes following surgery, I’m going to hazard a guess and say being purposeful certainly can’t hurt, but what does that mean?

According to the researchers studying it, purpose in life is “the psychological tendency to derive meaning from life's experiences and possess a sense of intentionality and goal directedness.” Examples: ensuring your family is happy, contributing to the betterment of society, or leading a creative life. Bottom line? If you want to be healthier, live longer, and experience less pain, you have to find something to live and be well for.

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